Why are some Australians still fighting for the right to produce, sell, or own the Golliwog doll if it has become such a controversial symbol?
“These dolls have got a very honourable past and I don’t think it’s fair to inflict any sick connotations of racism onto something that’s got nothing to do with racism… People need to get a grip, it’s a doll.”
– Jan Johnco, National Sales Manager at Elka, the Australian soft toy manufacturer
Although the doll has been gradually removed from shops in the U.S., Europe, and the U.K., it is still being sold in many shops all across Australia, mostly to older, nostalgic baby-boomers who are missing the toys that they grew up loving. It’s even showing up in hot air balloon form, and criticised for being banned from the Canberra festival last month.
For a large community around the world, however, the Golliwog is more than just a doll. So, what exactly is a Golliwog, later Golliwog (without last “g”), where does the word come from, and why is this cuddly toy so divisive?
The creator of the Golliwog doll, Florence Kate Upton, was born in 1873 in New York to British parents during a time in U.S. history when minstrel shows were still rising in popularity. Early minstrel shows in New York allowed white performers to paint themselves black and don primitive, exaggerated African American features, now known as Black Face. With augmented noses, lips painted red and other features protruding, dressing up as poor and representing a caricature of an African American, these shows dehumanized and have perpetuated a negative, racial stereotype of Black Americans.
In 1887, Upton moved back to England where she illustrated a children’s book, “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg.” The Golliwogg in her story was depicted with the same exaggerated features that were popular in the minstrel shows back in New York, and was described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome,” that made the other dolls “scatter in fright.”
A similar racist, fictional character and childhood tradition was also created for children’s books in The Netherlands. Zwarte Pete, or “Black Pete,” and was said to have been inspired by a slave from Egypt who was brought to the Netherlands during the slave trade. This character was also designed with an exaggerated and insulting appearance said to have been influenced by the “Blackface” minstrel shows in the U.S.
While Black Pete remained mostly a Dutch tradition, interest in the Golliwog doll began to grow outside of the U.K. The image soon made its way around the world in various forms of childrens toys, advertisements, perfumes, and even mascots. During the civil rights movement in the U.S., the backlash and criticism of the Golliwog spilled over back to the U.K., as the blackface doll symbolised racial insensitivity toward people of African descent and a mockery of Black people during and after slavery.
If all of that isn’t reason enough to justify removing the doll from shops to avoid passing along this overt form of racial parody and disregard to younger generations, the word itself should at least spark some discussion in the diverse community that makes up Australia today.
In the early 1900s when the Golliwogg doll became popular in Britain, so did the shortened version of the word, “wog,” an offensive racial slur that referred to people who were dark-skinned. Years later the term was carried over to Australia during the nation’s White Australia Policy and was also used as a racial slur. In Australia however, the word “wog” referred to those who immigrated from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, especially large groups from Greece and Italy, and in some cases, anyone darker than the average White Australian. While some present day Mediterranean communities in Australia now wear this title almost with a sense of pride, the term in Britain still remains undeniably offensive and is considered on-par with the n-word in the U.S.
Some people also theorise that the term “golliwog” actually originated from the Working On Government Service (WOGS) laborers in 19th century Egypt who were supposedly referred to as “ghouls” by the British soldiers. The Egyptian laborers’ children played with black cloth dolls that they often gave to the soldiers who called them “ghuliwogs.” This theory, however widely believed and circulated, is still unproven.
The term “wog” may be thrown around playfully in some circles, and some may not be completely aware of its origin, but others continue to feel attacked by its use and consider it casual racism, and it is evident the term still carries a negative connotation. With the large number of Australians who have Mediterranean, Eastern European or Middle Eastern backgrounds, continuous support of Golliwogs by the White community adds fuel to the racial flame and only creates further division.
The First Nations People of Australia also find offence to the black doll with exaggerated features that mock a historically disadvantaged population. It is a reminder that years ago while White Australians, Americans, or Brits enjoyed and normalised their racist dolls, the affected minority populations such as Black or Indigenous were systematically oppressed, and in many cases still are.
Whether the racism is intentional or not, by keeping the dolls or other Golliwog images publicly visible in a shop or gallery, it is still offensive. What matters here is not the intent, but the effect it has on Black and Indigenous People of Colour. By collecting them or making them available simply because it’s a fond memory of the past does not make the racial offensiveness of them disappear. People are voicing their concern and disappointment, yet the dolls are still there.
As a Black and Indigenous Person of Colour, do you find offence in seeing the Golliwog in shop windows, at festivals, or in art events? Why or why not?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.
As a Latina from the U.S. who only recently moved to Australia, I don’t pretend to know everything about the struggle of First Nations People, but my experience does give me an unfortunate familiarity with systematic racial discrimination and injustice. Regardless of my cultural background, as a human being I believe that after years being tortured with massacres, shootings, beatings, theft of their children and land, poisonings, and deaths while in custody, the First Nations People of Australia deserve a chance at peace, to live their lives free of discrimination and racism, and to have their stories accurately heard and documented. Many organisations have been working to research and report accurate information on this history that has been kept out of Australia’s history books, such as The Guardian’s interactive map of “the systematic process of conflict and expansion,” but there is still much left to be done.
The United Nations’ legal definition of genocide reads:
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part 1; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide
The forced removal of First Nations children from their parents and placement into white homes and the large-scale massacres and other atrocities committed during and after the invasion of Australia are all blatant examples of genocide. It is important that the facts and stories are recorded and available so that racial discrimination, hate, and trauma does not continue to affect future generations, such as the PTSD and nightmares that children of victims of the Rwandan genocide are facing now 25 years later.
As my Master’s Degree in post-conflict peacebuilding has shown me, in many areas of the world that are dealing with post-conflict societal repair, truth telling is a complex and challenging concept and the processes and proposed outcomes may be overwhelming or seem out of reach. Many question whether society could handle hearing all of the brutal details of killings that occurred, wondering if it would feel like rubbing salt in open wounds, create further division, or cause more hurt for the community and the younger generations. Some also consider the idea that documenting these atrocities would officially admit to committing acts of racism and abhorrent human rights abuses by a nation that is now internationally considered to be safe and successful. People often don’t want to believe the worst, especially about the country they call home.
These concerns, however, are meager compared to the proposed benefits of an official truth-telling body, and demonstrated successes that they have had in other areas of the world such as South Africa and Timor-Leste. The First Nations communities could finally have their documented accounts recognized, a true and accurate description of what happened could be updated into school curriculum, a platform for healing of those affected could be opened, and those who are unaware of the details could then have the archives available. These recognitions and progress in human rights could ultimately contribute to an international example of reconciliation for Australia.
According to Reconciliation Australia’s 2018 report, an overwhelming 80% of Australia’s general population “believe it is important to undertake formal truth telling processes in relation to Australia’s shared history.” Considering the resources and international support that Australia has access to, there is no reason that a truth-telling body should not be established. Doing so has the potential to take a step toward combating the systematic racism that continues today, and finally releasing the tight grip that White Australia holds around First Nations communities and their history.
Let us know what you think in the comments. Is truth-telling an important step toward reconciliation and healing for Australia?
We are working on an interesting YouTube video lately! Would you like to be a part of it? Read on to know more.
Camille, our Intern from France, is creating a Youtube video highlighting the stories of those who have personally experienced racism. Here is a little glimpse of what you will get to see (alternatively you can click on the picture above). The goal is to spread awareness on how racism personally affects people and why it needs to be challenged. We believe that the sharing of stories helps us to understand each other and break down the barriers that divide us. What’s more, we will share some helpful links on how you can overcome racism in different walks of life. You can reach Camille at [email protected].
New research conducted by All Together Now and University of Technology Sydney has found that 62 opinion based reports potentially breached at least one of the media Codes of Conduct due to racism.
The full research findings are available at alltogethernow.org.au/media-monitoring.
Priscilla Brice, the Managing Director of not-for-profit organisation All Together Now said, “Among the publications we tracked during this six-month study, negative portrayals of race were most frequently published on News Corp’s online newspapers Daily Telegraph, The Australian and Herald-Sun.”
The research conducted between January to July this year, found that Muslims were mentioned in more than half of the opinion pieces, and more than twice as many times as any other single group mentioned. Of these, 63% of reports about Muslims were framed negatively.
“Anecdotally, we know that negative portrayals of Muslims in the media is having adverse effects in communities, with Muslim families (and particularly women wearing hijab or other head coverings) being victimised. All Together Now’s research provides data to show that of the highest-rated news outlets, News Corp is the primary perpetrator. News Corp has a lot of work to do to improve their editorial policies to ensure their journalists don’t target people based on their race, nationality, religion or other cultural attributes.”
The study focused on opinion-based articles published by the four most-watched current affairs TV programs, and the four most-read newspapers nationally, as determined by ratings agencies.
Currently, under some media regulations, audiences have only thirty days in which to make a complaint. The research report recommends that this deadline be removed to allow audiences to make complaints about racist media content at any time, and for the definition of racism be broadened in the Codes of Conduct to include covert forms of racism.
It also recommends that news agencies support journalists to discuss race sensitively. They can do this by providing training, recruiting more journalists of colour, and ensuring that their editorial policies are racially aware.
The full research findings are available at alltogethernow.org.au/media-monitoring.
Sara is a mechanical engineer, originally from Egypt, who moved to Australia over a decade ago. She has lived across various parts of Australia, and has encountered soul-crushing racism in cosmopolitan as well as regional parts of the country. Being a hijab-clad Muslim woman has made her an easy and visible target for hateful and violent behaviour.
When she had just migrated to Australia and was looking for a job, she faced several rejections despite being suitably qualified. The penny dropped when one interviewer in Melbourne confessed that he wouldn’t, or couldn’t employ her, because she wore a hijab. He added that while he was being honest, several potential employers might just brush her off with excuses, but that her headscarf was central to the rejections she received. Being unaware of anti-discrimination laws at the time, Sara let the episode pass, and shrugged it off.
She continues to face everyday racism in the form of derisive looks and comments, but a particular incident left her unable to just “move on”, as victims of racial abuse are often urged to do.
With her one-year-old daughter in her pram, Sara was walking along a street near the Westfield mall in Hornsby, Sydney. In anticipation of a council clean-up, the footpath was strewn with discarded household goods. As Sara made her way up the street, she felt her head violently yanked as a woman pulled at her hijab from behind. Caught completely off guard, Sara’s first instinct was to protect her child, and she blocked the woman’s access to her pram, screaming, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” The woman continued to berate Sara, and picked up the handle of a discarded vacuum cleaner lying on the footpath and threatened to hurt her, saying, “I’m going to kill you.”
Hearing the commotion, a resident in a nearby block of units called the police, and came down to help Sara. As more people trickled out of their homes, the woman ran away, leaving Sara very shaken.
When the police arrived, Sara and others who had witnessed the incident made their official statements. However, despite a clear description of the woman and good leads on where she had headed, no headway was made. Not only did Sara not hear back from the police, but she also struggled with intense panic attacks and was unable to step outside her home for over a year. She has spent a lot of time looking over her shoulder, and cannot shake off the deep-seated fear that the attack instilled in her.
She insists that her hijab is very much an act of agency and choice, and she asserts that she has just as much right as anybody else to be in Australia. “I am well-accomplished, multi-lingual and a good, tax-paying citizen. Why must I leave or change? It’s time for Australians to grow up!” she says, tired of having to defend herself over her choice – to simply be herself.
Cosmopolitan magazine published an article about casual racism in the October issue of their magazine (which is no longer on sale).
If you missed it, you can download a copy of the article (PDF) thanks to Cosmo!
The article features our Everyday Racism app as a solution to teaching people how to speak up against racism.